Ezekiel 20 Commentary

Idolatry in the past (20:1-26)

Ezekiel records another occasion when the leaders of the exiles came to him with certain questions. God told him not to waste time dealing with their questions (20:1-3). Rather Ezekiel was to deal with the more important issue of the people’s false understanding of God. Since wrong attitudes had been passed on from generation to generation, Ezekiel began to recount Israel’s history from the time the people were in Egypt (4-6). Even in Egypt they had been attracted to idols and had displayed the rebellion that was to characterize their long history. God could rightly have destroyed the people then, but he refrained. He did not want the Egyptians to misunderstand his actions and accuse him of evil (7-9).

In his grace God saved the people from Egypt and gave them his rules for right living. He also gave them the Sabbath rest day as a sign that they were his people by covenant (10-12). Again they rebelled and again God withheld his judgment when he may have justly destroyed them (13-17). Time and time again they rebelled, but God still withheld his judgment (18-22). He warned them that if they persisted in their disobedience and idolatry he would scatter them among foreign nations. He would leave them to harm themselves by following heathen customs such as child sacrifice (23-26).


Past mistakes must not be repeated (20:27-44)

Having clearly illustrated that Israel had always shown a tendency to idolatry, Ezekiel now began to apply the lessons of history to his fellow exiles in Babylon. He reminded them that as soon as the people of Israel settled in Canaan they copied the religious practices of the Canaanites (27-29). Those of Ezekiel’s day were just as idolatrous in heart and were thinking of copying the idolatrous ways of Babylon. God warns that he will not allow this to happen (30-32).

As he saved his people from Egypt, so God will save them from Babylon. He will bring them back to their homeland (33-34). Again they will pass through the wilderness, but this time God will take firm control of them. He will sort them as a shepherd sorts sheep, removing those who still want to worship idols. This time only those loyal to him will inherit the promised land (35-38).

With all their idolatrous tendencies left behind in Babylon, God’s people will worship him in holiness in Jerusalem. They will offer sacrifices that are acceptable to him (39-40). When surrounding nations see Yahweh and his people living in true holiness, they will appreciate the character of Israel’s God (41-42). The people of Israel will then have a proper understanding of God and will be ashamed of their former unfaithfulness (43-44).

Babylon’s terrifying attack (20:45-21:17)

The usual way to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem was by a semi-circular route that avoided the Arabian desert by following the Euphrates River to the north-west then turning south towards Judah. (See map ‘Near East in the time of Jeremiah.) Ezekiel put himself in the position of the Babylonian army as it moved south into Judah, overrunning and destroying the country as an uncontrollable bushfire. None would escape its terror (45-48). But the people did not understand Ezekiel’s message (49).

Ezekiel therefore changed his symbol of God’s judgment from fire to a sword. This sword would bring slaughter, not just to Jerusalem but to the whole land of Judah (21:1-5). Ezekiel’s display of bitter grief showed his hearers how frightening this coming judgment would be (6-7).

To emphasize his message and illustrate its urgency, Ezekiel gave a dramatic demonstration of a swordsman cutting down his enemy. The Judeans had not heeded when God used a stick to discipline them. He would therefore use the sharpened sword of Babylon to slay them (8-13). While acting the part of a swordsman, Ezekiel also acted the part of the onlookers, by occasionally clapping his hands at the swordsman’s display. In this way he indicated God’s approval of Judah’s destruction (14-17).

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